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Standardizing Range Temperatures and Language


Chris Amirault
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I've just moved to a new house where I have the great benefit of a terrific Thermador electric range, after several years of using a serviceable gas range. Both have numbers and the descriptors "Low," "Medium," and "High" on them, but that's where the similarity ends. A pan on medium on the gas range would require five minutes to get to an adequate sauté temperature, whereas oil poured into a pan that had spent five minutes on medium on the electric range would smoke instantly.

Of course, range manufacturers aren't the only culprits when it comes to labels, temperature and relativity. Recipes use the labels as if they mean something useful, particularly recipes written for less experienced cooks. That's really bizarre: I'm convinced that managing this relativity is one of the key skills of a skilled cook, and that confusion around range labels and temps is the biggest curse of the new cook.

There are build-arounds that we all use. If you have enough of a cooking medium (water or fry oil), you can take a temperature. You can use impressionistic information, like butter's color, an oil's shimmer. But unless you have a thorough understanding of your cookware, stove, and ingredients, you can't use, say, the rate at which an onion browns to learn anything conclusive about what "medium" means -- and by that time such labels are useless anyway.

So I ask you: is there any way to standardize this language the way we have for oven and oil temperatures? Or is it just impossible? If the latter, how in the world can one explain "set the burner to medium" to a novice cook?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I have used gas ranges almost exclusively throughout my life, and I've always just felt by looking at the flame that, "Yeah, that's medium." or something similar. As far as explaining it to a newbie, I think I'd be hopelessly lost.

"...which usually means underflavored, undersalted modern French cooking hidden under edible flowers and Mexican fruits."

- Jeffrey Steingarten, in reference to "California Cuisine".

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Yeah, I discovered how well that works last time someone put me in front of a honest-to-god commercial range. Those don't seem to have a "low." Or a "medium." They have "off," "high," and "kill it with fire." Eyeballing it didn't work so well for me.

I think the only realistic approach is to do away with the LMH system altogether, and just go with qualitative terms like "tortilla is speckled and opaque after 15 seconds". Of course, some photos of what that looks like would help too. Plus, the fact of the matter is that it doesn't really matter most of the time: "bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, simmer on low until done" really translates to "bring to a simmer, hold at simmer at whatever setting you need to do that..."

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I'm not sure range temperature would be the relevant measure for standardization, since one cooks on cookware not a range. What matters most is the surface temperature of the cookware, at least for sauteing and other dry cooking methods. That means an infrared thermometer would have to become standard home-kitchen equipment in order for us to be able to communicate in a fully objective manner about this issue. Even then, thermal capacity of cookware is going to affect performance once a given surface temperature is established.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Yeah, I discovered how well that works last time someone put me in front of a honest-to-god commercial range. Those don't seem to have a "low." Or a "medium." They have "off," "high," and "kill it with fire." Eyeballing it didn't work so well for me.

Yeah, it's true. High on a typical home range like mine would equal medium-low on 30,000 BTU commercial range. That's no exaggeration.

Temperature isn't a solution, because we're not actually talking about temperature ... we're talking about power, which is the rate of energy transfer. A stock pot full of water will only get to 100°C whether it's on a hot plate or a monstrous commercial burner. But it will get there in a fraction of the time on the latter.

We could use BTUs (but I don't think it'll happen). We're stuck, unless major player in the industry, and cookbook authors, could agree on a simple, power-based standard. I don't see it happening. We can't even get cookbook publishers use weight measurements.

Notes from the underbelly

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But the speed at which a pot of water came up to the boil isn't all that relevant to cooking performance. Boiled/simmered/poached foods come out pretty much the same no matter the equipment. It's the dry cooking methods where the variance is so significant.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Right, but even there, we're not cooking with a thermostat. Heat enters the pan, heat leaves the pan (through radiation, conduction to the food and air, and through evaporation of water). The rate of heat entering the pan vs. these other processes determines the final pan temperature.

Suppose you crank the fire as high as you can on a high powered range (as you would for sautéing). If you don't put any food in the pan, the temperature will climb to the point where your oil will incinerate. But putting in the food bleeds off heat immediately, dropping the pan surface down into the right range for browning.

There are some cooking processes where you could use temperature, with the right equipment. Like crepes or pancakes. Here an electric griddle with a thermostat works fine. But without a thermostat, I find it tricky to work like this. I like my to cook crepes at 375 to 395°F, but if I get a frying pan that hot (using an IR thermometer) and drop batter into it, the temperature immediately drops 20 degrees and takes a long time to recover. More time than it takes to cook the side a crepe. So I start with the pan hotter ... how much hotter depends on the pan and god knows what else. In the end, I find it easier to skip the IR thermometer and just eyeball the fire.

Notes from the underbelly

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The correct unit of measurement should be the effective Watt (or BTU for imperial measurements) which is the stove output * efficiency. Not all the heat from your stove will go towards cooking your food so you can't simply use your stove rating. Gas burners are going to be less efficient than electric or induction.

A simple way to measure this would be to put your desired pan on the burner and fill it with 1L of ~20C water and measure how long it takes to raise the temperature from 30C to 40C (starting at 30C ensures you don't need to take into account the initial heating of the pan). It requires ~42,000 J to raise 1L of water by 10C so divide that by the time to get the watt rating (eg: 42s = 1000W, 21s = 2000W). Multiply that number by 3.4 if you want the BTU.

PS: I am a guy.

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There are some cooking processes where you could use temperature, with the right equipment. Like crepes or pancakes. Here an electric griddle with a thermostat works fine. But without a thermostat, I find it tricky to work like this. I like my to cook crepes at 375 to 395°F, but if I get a frying pan that hot (using an IR thermometer) and drop batter into it, the temperature immediately drops 20 degrees and takes a long time to recover. More time than it takes to cook the side a crepe. So I start with the pan hotter ... how much hotter depends on the pan and god knows what else. In the end, I find it easier to skip the IR thermometer and just eyeball the fire.

I think crepes/pancakes are a great example of items that quickly and definitively separate new cooks from experienced ones. Whether it's a throw-away crepe, the dancing water droplets, rate of butter melting/browning, those are all maddeningly difficult to understand when you're just getting started and in media res.

A simple way to measure this would be to put your desired pan on the burner and fill it with 1L of ~20C water and measure how long it takes to raise the temperature from 30C to 40C (starting at 30C ensures you don't need to take into account the initial heating of the pan). It requires ~42,000 J to raise 1L of water by 10C so divide that by the time to get the watt rating (eg: 42s = 1000W, 21s = 2000W). Multiply that number by 3.4 if you want the BTU.

I wouldn't call that simple!

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It's really the saute-type dry-ish cooking methods that are difficult to express and standardize as simple numbers.

Crepes and pancakes are essentially baked. They're cooked in pans but it probably makes most sense to call the process "stovetop baking" or "pan baking" or something like that. As a result, pan-surface temperature is a relevant measure just as it is with oven baking. An infrared thermomether can make a huge difference there, just as a properly calibrated oven can with regular baking. There are variables other than temperature at play, but temperature is the big one.

With wet cooking (at sea-level atmospheric pressure) there's the automatic regulatory process that limits the boiling point to 100c.

I've noticed that in Europe they often have numbers 1-10 on the range dials. Are these standardized in some way?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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It's really the saute-type dry-ish cooking methods that are difficult to express and standardize as simple numb

With wet cooking (at sea-level atmospheric pressure) there's the automatic regulatory process that limits the boiling point to 100c.

It's not even that simple. Look at something like a hollandaise sauce. The sabayon is going to cook at a set temperature, but you're always using a pan that's much hotter than this. Beginning cookbooks tell you to use a cooler pan (like a double boiler) which means whisking for a long time, with relatively little risk of screwing up. More exprerienced cooks work on fairly high, direct heat, which allows the sabayon to whip up faster and to a much airier consistency.

In both approaches, we're concerned with heating power, not pan temperature. And in both, the correct power will be determined largely by the size of the pan and the quantity of sauce you're making. I don't see how a temperature metric would be of any help.

In these cases, the vague language of "low heat" and "medium high heat" may be the best thing we have.

The distinction of foods that bake in the pan might be a good one. Those are cases that argue for ranges with thermostats.

Notes from the underbelly

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Low, medium and high are all relative. First, it applies to the maximum heat provided by the range. But, to some extent, it also applies to that being cooked. The setting of “medium” for a 1L pot will be different than medium for a 10L one. So, if you work with a commercial range with large quantities, your “medium” may be a “high” on a home range. If we can define an absolute heat for each setting, which is possible,some ranges may never have a “high” and some will find a “low” difficult to maintain. I guess you will know the setting when you see it.

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The setting of “medium” for a 1L pot will be different than medium for a 10L one.

I don't understand. Wouldn't the setting on the range for both be "medium"? Or are you making a point about efficiency or something else?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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